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Highly polluting paper factories in Africatown, Alabama, US


Description:

Africatown is a small low-income African American community that resides in Mobile, Alabama. The site of the last slave ship to come to the United States in 1860, Africatown was formed as a small community by a group of 32 West Africans after slavery was abolished [1]. Africatown was thriving: freedman bought land from their previous owners, shaping a self-governing community drawn from African traditions [1][5].

A good site for industrial plants and mills because of its location along the water, a paper plant was built on the edge of Africatown in 1928 on land first owned by former slave trader and slave owner A. Meaher Jr. By the 1970s, industrial factories surrounded Africatown [2]. After several decades of the paper plant's operation and its chemical refinery next door, the town began to experience abnormally high rates of cancer, with dozens of reported cases per year and growing [1][2].  One year had even reported an astonishing number of 20 cases of cancer [1]. In the late 1990s, the EPA found dangerous levels of over a dozen pollutants in a nearby town, one that was not even surrounded by the factories like Africatown was [2].  As of 2020, two of the five largest industrial polluters in Mobile County are adjacent to Africatown [4].

What was once a town of nearly 12,000 residents has now become a mostly abandoned ghost town of just 2,000. Most major industries have left Africatown, including the paper mill in 2000, leaving behind  polluted air, polluted water and an unemployment crisis. 

In 2017, a group of about 1,200 residents filed a lawsuit against the company International Paper, which had owned the now-closed paper plant. Residents claimed that International Paper's improper waste management over the decades had led to contaminated land and water, resulting in a high prevalence of cancer in Africatown. International Paper continues to deny any allegations and the lawsuit still open, making the future of Africatown uncertain. 

Africatown's plight has, however, garnered the attention of Senator Cory Booker and former Chief of Environmental Justice for the EPA, Mustafa Santiago Ali, who now works for the non-profit human and civil rights group Hip Hop Caucus. Residents of Africatown have met with these environmental justice leaders to discuss the problem and possible solutions. 

The threat of major industry in the surrounding area is still a concern, as in a future land use plan for the city of Mobile, much of the land surrounding Africatown is zoned for heavy industry use. This land use plan increases the threat of pollution as well as the loss of local businesses. 

One major industry that poses a threat to Africatown in the future are chemical water treatment plants. One such company is Kemira Water Solutions, which has proposed an expansion project on a chemical plant located in Chickasaw - also part of Mobile County. The expansion, aiming to be complete in 2020, would include a new chemical production unit which would make Bio-Acrylamide, a highly toxic chemical used in the production of paper, dye, plastics, and in the treatment of drinking water and wastewater [3]. Exposure to high amounts of acrylamide is known to cause nerve damage and cancer in animals, including humans [6].

Members of an environmental group, C.H.E.S.S. from Africatown have confronted state environmental regulators to voice their distrust, using the town's past of cancer and pollution as reasoning [3]. Kemira officials argue that emissions will not be increased, but residents of Africatown and others in Mobile Country are skeptical. As of today, the fight for environmental justice and exposures to toxic pollution in Africatown continues [8].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Highly polluting paper factories in Africatown, Alabama, US
Country:United States of America
State or province:Alabama
Location of conflict:Mobile County
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Chemical industries
Other industries
Specific commodities:Chemical products
Industrial waste
Paper

Project Details and Actors

Project details

-The first project, closed in 2000, was International Paper. Not much data exists on the emissions and amount of waste produced from the plant, however according to a 1992 report in the Birmingham News, 53,000 pounds of chloroform were released into the air that year from the plant in Africatown alone [2].

-By the 1970s, Africatown was surrounded by industrial factories.

-In 1980, Africatown's business district was bulldozed to make space for an interstate [2].

-Kemira Water Solutions is soon to be an ongoing project. The expansion includes a new Bio-Acrylamide production unit, storage tanks, and loading and unloading stations for railcars and big trucks.

Project area:2,000
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:12,000
Start of the conflict:2017
Company names or state enterprises:International Paper Co. (IP) from United States of America - Air and water pollution, improper waste management
Kemira Water Solutions (KWS) from Finland - Expansion project on a chemical treatment plant, set to be finished in late 2020.
Relevant government actors:Environmental Protection Agency
Town of Mobile
State of Alabama
Alabama Department of Environmental Management
Chickasaw Police Department
Chickasaw Fire Department
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:- Clean Healthy Educated Safe & Sustainable (C.H.E.S.S) (http://www.africatown-chess.org/)
-Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (https://www.dscej.org/)
-Hip Hop Caucus (https://hiphopcaucus.org/)
-HBCU-CBO Gulf Coast Equity Consortium (https://www.dscej.org/our-work/hbcu-cbo-gulf-equity-consortium)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Informal workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Neighbours/citizens/communities
Social movements
Women
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Religious groups
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage)
Potential: Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Infectious diseases, Malnutrition
Other Health impactsalthough no town-specific data exists, longtime residents report they are dying mostly from cancer before age 65 and a recent survey of 150 residents reported 100 of them or their local relatives had cancer [9]
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights
Potential: Loss of landscape/sense of place

Outcome

Project StatusUnknown
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (undecided)
Migration/displacement
Strengthening of participation
Application of existing regulations
Proposal and development of alternatives:Residents are seeking compensation and environmental restoration.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The population of Africatown has dwindled over the past few decades. Residents continue to fall ill to cancer and other diseases as a result of pollution. Many people have lost their jobs and died as a result of pollution.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[5] Bourne, Joel. Saving Africatown. National Geographic Magazine. (2020).
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/clotilda-americas-last-slave-ship-stole-them-from-home-it-couldnt-steal-their-identities-feature

[3] Sharp, John. 'Price of human life': Africatown residents blast heavy industry during chemical plant hearing. Advance Local Media. (2018)
https://www.al.com/news/2018/11/price-of-human-life-africatown-residents-blast-heavy-industry-during-chemical-plant-hearing.html

[1] Zanolli, Lauren. 'Still fighting' : Africatown, site of last US slave shipment, sues over pollution. The Guardian. (2018).
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/26/africatown-site-of-last-us-slave-ship-arrival-sues-over-factorys-pollution

[2] Tabor, Nick. Africatown and the 21st-Century Stain of Slavery. The New Yorker. n.d.
http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/05/africatown-and-the-21st-century-stain-of-slavery.html

[4] Africatown on "60 Minutes". Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. 2020.
https://www.dscej.org/the-latest/africatown-on-60-minutes

[6] Dioxins and their effects on human health
https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dioxins-and-their-effects-on-human-health

[8] Overheated chemical tank drives evacuations near Mobile
https://www.al.com/news/2018/05/overheated_chemical_tank_drive.html

[9] Africatown, A Small Historically Black Town Fighting a Billion Dollar Company That’s Devastating Its Community with Toxic Waste
https://atlantablackstar.com/2018/02/25/africatown-small-historically-black-town-fighting-billion-dollar-company-thats-devastating-community-toxic-waste/

[7] Kemira plant expansion hearing
https://www.al.com/news/2018/11/price-of-human-life-africatown-residents-blast-heavy-industry-during-chemical-plant-hearing.html

Other comments:“The jobs are important, it’s true,” said Arlean Horton, who was born and raised in the Africatown neighborhood, also known as Plateau, not far away from the plant. “But if everyone is dead in the community, who will hold the positions?” [3]

Meta information

Contributor:Bryce Mather, Appalachian State University [email protected] / updated by Arielle Landau and Grettel Navas (ENVJustice Project)
Last update07/10/2021

Images

 

Modern Day Street in Africatown

A street in the center of Africatown, a sign of declining population. Source: The Guardian [1]

Africatown

Important historical sites and community buildings stand next to sites of toxic industrial pollution in Africatown. [2]